The Reluctant State
On 31 July 1900, Western Australia became the final Australian colony to vote for Federation. An overwhelming majority of voters were in favour of union with the eastern colonies. Within six months the Commonwealth of Australia had been proclaimed - 1 January 1901 - and campaigning for Federal elections had begun.
Yet, when Western Australians voted in their referendum the outcome had already been determined. The new Australian constitution had been proclaimed by Queen Victoria, omitting reference to Western Australia in the preamble as it had yet to make up its mind if it would become an original State. Western Australian political representatives who either opposed Federation outright or who wanted to hold out for more concessions from the other colonies, failed completely in their attempts to secure the support of the British Government. It was clear that Federation would go ahead with or without Australia's western third.
Sharp divisions in the West had delayed the referendum. These were the result of a decade of dramatic growth, fuelled by the discovery of gold in the colony just a few years after it was granted responsible government in 1890. By the time Western Australia joined the Federation in 1901, its population had soared from under 50,000 to nearly 200,000 in just a decade. These estimates generally didn't count the resident Aboriginal people who were also effectively barred from voting.
Ideas about Western Australian identity were affected by rapid social changes and economic developments. The arrival of a wave of immigrants from eastern Australia - referred to as t'othersiders by Western Australians - coincided with an increased momentum in the other Australian colonies towards Federation. Met with distrust and hostility by the residents of Western Australia's more established coastal and farming communities - known as sandgropers - the new arrivals naturally looked eastwards towards their former homes. Sandgropers, on the other hand, were more likely to look westwards across the Indian Ocean towards Britain.
Meanwhile some Aboriginal people did much of the work of clearing the land, droving cattle, leading expeditions and building infrastructure; while others continued living a traditional lifestyle where possible. But their thoughts and opinions went largely ignored and unrecorded by history. The story of Western Australia's reluctant entry into Federation is the story of these competing visions.
- What were the arguments for and against the vote for Federation?
- If Federation went ahead without Western Australia’s participation, what do you think Western Australia would be like today?
- Do you think Western Australia did the right thing by joining the Federation? What are your reasons?
Commonwealth of Australia